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by Phil Stott | April 30, 2012


One minute you're all worried about the economy, the next you turn around and lunch is on the agenda. Literally: the subject of victual breaks for employees has been seen everywhere of late from the California state Supreme Court to an ad campaign from a certain double-arched purveyor of fast food products reminding the American worker that "It's your lunch. Take it."

Reading between the lines, it's clear that there's a feeling in some quarters that the lunch break is in danger of becoming a thing of the past; that workers are finding themselves unable to leave their place of employment for long enough to not just buy something to eat, but to actually take the time to consume it off the premises as well.

Unfortunately, there's no easy way to assess the extent of the truth of that—"time spent on lunch" or "location of meals eaten during working hours" do not appear among the many things that the BLS measures, for example.

However, if you had to construct a scenario in which people voluntarily spent more time doing their jobs without receiving any extra income, it would likely look a lot like the past few years in the economy: A flood of layoffs, followed by a collective tightening of belts, and a sluggish recovery that hampers job mobility. The result: employees who are afraid to be seen giving less than their maximum effort, for fear of their name rising closer to the top of the list in the event of a fresh round of cost cuts.

Some data does exist to back that hypothesis up: in 2009 and 2010, U.S. productivity rose by 2.9 percent and 4 percent respectively, while the unemployment rate remained almost flat—proof positive that U.S. workers were doing more in the same amount of time.

The figure for 2011 is similarly revealing: with the financial crisis receding into history, productivity rose by a scant 0.4 percent. Whether or not we've maxed out the amount we can do, or are just less fearful about our futures, it seems that the only thing that will push productivity up at this point is to add extra employees.

With all of that in mind, it's hardly surprising that we're arriving at a point where some of the daily niceties of professional life may be making a comeback. So much the better, one might think—but surprisingly, not all workers are in the "more break time is better" camp.

In a recent article on the issue for example, Slate managing editor Rachael Larimor pointed out that many workers forego a lunch break so that their working day ends sooner, and they can begin concentrating on other tasks:

"If you’re an office worker with a few kids, you first must wake up and endure a mad scramble to get everyone dressed and out the door—that’s an hour or two of non-quality family time. Then there’s the commute. If it’s 30 minutes each way, that’s another hour wasted. And then you work for eight or nine hours. If you take an hour for lunch, that’s just another hour that you’re not spending at home with your spouse and kids or at the gym. It’s another hour that you’re paying the sitter. With lunch, an office drone could leave home at 8 a.m. and not get home until 6:30 p.m. When are you supposed to cook dinner? How are you supposed to get to Little League on time?"

However you feel about the issue, one thing is for sure: the fact that it's on any agenda at all is surely a positive step. As that McDonald's commercial makes clear, the days of fearful employees eking out an extra 20 minutes of productivity (or pretending to) by not leaving the office may well be passing. That's something we can all raise a glass to—whether at your desk or not.

Have Your Say:Where do you stand on the working lunch? Let us know in the comments section below.

--Phil Stott,

Related: I'd Rather Eat at My Desk.


Filed Under: Workplace Issues
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